How we stopped being comrades

Freedom is not a birthright. No generation receives freedom ready-made and perfect: pre-prepared for consumption.

The For a Decent Slovakia protest gathering in Bratislava in 2019. (Source: Sme - Marko Erd)

Read the text that has won the European Press Prize 2020. It was originally published in Slovak by the Sme daily on November 15, 2019.

It was November 1989 and I was trying to breathe in, together with the sharp air, a new experience: freedom. We were testing ourselves in new roles, unknown to us till then. In courageous, provocative, loud, affectionate and inspiring roles. Above all, free roles. Instead of applauding as we gathered at squares, we jangled our keys.

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We told ourselves that the revolution had taken us by the hand and led us out from Plato’s famous cave and we were able to perceive contours, forms and colours, not just shadows on the wall. But were all of us really able to suddenly see much more clearly?

We were beginners in freedom.

We were learning how to name things again. A public march was no longer an indifferent affair with artificial carnations and red banners with printed pictures of long-bearded fathers of communist ideology. It was a protest from which no one tried to escape at the nearest corner after waving at the party secretariat and the generals on the grandstand.

Calling each other comrade lost its value overnight, in the morning we were all citizens.

We were trying to grasp the difference between the freedom of that November from the ‘un-freedom’ in which we had grown up. We were inundated by new definitions, it felt like rain after a drought. The earth was absorbing it, but we did not know what would grow in our gardens in the end.

Communists and certainties

A lot of people who lived most of their adult lives under communism were afraid. They were scared of losing their certainties, certainties to which the communist regime had condemned several generations.

They had nothing else, except these certainties: the certainty of being allocated a flat in a high-rise prefabricated block in a housing estate, the certainty of a job for life, of oranges in shops before Christmas, and the certainty of one party rule. The certainty of May Day celebrations, of chanting "with the USSR, forever ", things that would never change. The certainty of what had to be called “fraternal military help” and two state channels on their black and white TV. The certainty that everyone else was eating the very same lunch in canteens and that all that was required was "to keep your mouth shut and toe the line".

Even today, after thirty years, some people ask: what was so bad about it? They don't remember all the compromises and the humiliations that these certainties brought to a part of the nation.

Or there was the certainty of fear and of informers, of hard manual labour for those who criticised the regime, or even being sent to the uranium mines in Jáchymov. The certainty of the ‘baksheesh’, of the gifts and the bribes, of the black socialist limousines, Tatras and Zils - exclusively for the apparatchiks - of lavatories with no toilet paper, and most of us without a passport, some maybe got a travel permit to Romania.

"We thank you, mother party, for the warmth and the glow, we promise to give you support with all our heart."

Away with the communists, we shouted then. Most likely we did not have in mind all the members of the communist party whom we knew personally: our neighbours, teachers, relatives, and the celebrities of socialism. Where would they go? We believed that communism would run off people like sweat after a purifying fever. Thirty years later we are finding out that for some it will never run off. As a child I never actually knew what a communist was, even though the whole educational system worked to engrain in us from early childhood that they were the good ones. But they did not fit into the traditional fairy tales our granny told, in which good and evil were easily discernible.

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